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2014 Virginia Football Preview: UCLA

A lot is riding on the 2014 season for Mike London and the Hoos. Another 2-10 season will certainly spell the end of the Mike London era. Starting off with a top-10 team is not ideal, but that's the challenge the Hoos will face. Heisman candidate QB Brett Hundley and UCLA come calling Saturday at noon to start off this make-or-break season.

Will this game be the beginning of the end for Coach Mike London?
Will this game be the beginning of the end for Coach Mike London?

I had an entire intro written about the 2013 season, about Mike London's tenure and about how the 2014 season could impact the UVA football program. But, I realized that it was just rehashing the past 9 months of articles. It wasn't anything new. So I scrapped it...

The 2014 season opens with the Hoos facing the #7 team in the country, the UCLA Bruins. Obviously, on paper, this couldn't be a worse matchup. The Hoos need wins badly, and facing a top 10 team coming off a 10 win season and boasting a Heisman candidate at QB seems like a terrible idea. And, in a lot of ways, it is. However, when you look deeper, it's not that bad. For one thing, it's the first game of the season, so it doesn't mean all that much. It's a good starting point for the season. The Hoos aren't going to face another team this good until November. If the Hoos can hang with UCLA, it'll be a great sign for the rest of the season.

But how does the team actually matchup with the Bruins? Do the Hoos have a shot? How are things going to be different from last year? Let's take a look.

UCLA Offense

Players to Note

#17 QB Brett Hundley - Big, strong QB who can throw any pass in the route tree. Biggest strength as a QB is athleticism. Can get out of the pocket and make people miss. 748 yards rushing last year (12th among QBs), to go along with 3071 yards in the air (29th in the nation). Completed 66.8% of his passes, and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt (23rd) and 12.83 yards per completion (51st). Could've been a top-10 pick in the draft this year, but chose to come back.

#6 RB Jordon James - Bigtime recruit in 2010, ranking in the top 10 among all RB recruits. Redshirted his first year and since then has seen action in 36 games with 12 starts at both RB and FB. Has 803 yards and 8 TDs in 182 carries for 4.4 yards per carry. Not a big back, but very fast, with quick feet. Has suffered a couple of different injuries in his career, but appears to be healthy coming into the season.

#30 RB Myles Jack - Big, downhill RB with good straight ahead speed. Tough to bring down once he gets a head of steam. Named to several freshman All-American teams. Named offensive freshman of the year in the Pac-12. Scored 7 rushing touchdowns.

#7 WR Devin Fuller - Speedy WR out of NJ who was heavily recruited by the Hoos. Tall, but not a very big guy. Possesses terrific top-end speed. Was a QB in HS, but transitioned to WR immediately and made an impact as a true freshman with 20 receptions for 145 yards. There were rumors he would move back to QB after his freshman season, but that didn't happen, largely due to the emergence of Hundley. Has at least one catch in 19 straight games.

#9 WR Jordan Payton - Tallish, bigger than Fuller but not nearly as fast. Possession receiver. Very good route runner, superb hands. Good on jump balls. He's a tough cover because he uses his size well to avoid getting jammed at the line and then will "box out" a smaller CB. Not slow by any means, but not going to beat a DB downfield. Will still run deep routes, using his height and leaping ability to catch balls above the DB.

Offense Breakdown

Not surprisingly, UCLA's offense relies heavily on Hundley to make plays. As I mentioned above, Hundley led the team in rushing, along with his passing skills. Part of that was due to a RB-by-committee approach, but he's also a very talented runner. I wouldn't be surprised if we continue to see a committee approach, because RB1 is healthy but the team is very high on RB2.

UCLA lost Xavier Su'a-Filo (who played both LG and LT last year) to the NFL, but the rest of the OL returns from last year. This includes junior Jake Brendel ,who is a Rimington award candidate. All told, the OL has 75 starts as a unit (compare this to the Hoos OL, which has just 32). This unit is solid and is going to make it difficult for the Hoos to get pressure on Hundley. Tenuta will try, but if we send pressure and don't get there, Hundley is going to make us pay.

If we're going to bring pressure, that means playing a lot of man defense. Not having Tra Nicholson in the secondary will hurt, because he's probably our best man cover guy. UCLA's WRs are fast, but not particularly big. The biggest receiver they have is Thomas Duarte, who is 6'3", 223. Hopefully, the Hoos will be able to play matchups with bigger CBs against bigger WRs. UCLA will obviously try to use motion and pick plays to get a bigger WR matched up with Drequan Hoskey or another smallish CB. Having so many big CBs helps.

UCLA does not have a TE on the roster. They will run almost exclusively out of 3 and 4 WR sets. When they are in a 3 WR set, it will be with 2 running backs, but the second back isn't always a FB. Because of these types of formation, the Hoos will likely spend a majority of the game with 5 (or 6) DBs on the field. We may see an extra safety on the field (such as Wil Wahee, perhaps) as opposed to an extra CB (such as Hoskey). This is because, despite the multiple WR sets, UCLA is a rushing team. They rushed 556 times, versus just 371 pass attempts. UCLA scored 37 points per game last year, good for 20th in the nation. They were 38th in total offense, 35th in rushing offense and 43rd in passing offense.

Obviously, with Hundley at QB many of those rush attempts were actually called as passes (or run/pass option). But not enough to make up a 200 play gap. UCLA likes the run the ball, and if we're going to spend most of the game with 5 DBs, they will take advantage.

The key, for the Hoos defense, is containment. Let's face it, the Hoos aren't going to shut out UCLA and Brett Hundley. They'll score (and probably quite a bit...this offense is very good). Far too often last year, the Hoos gave up big plays for easy scores. We can't let that happen. Make UCLA work down the field methodically. And, of course, if Hundley gets out of the pocket and runs, we need to hit him. A couple of decent shots from Daquan Romero and Hundley may be less interested in running. (Although to be honest, Hundley is bigger than Romero, so Romero may take the worst of that hit. Still, the easiest way to stop a running QB is to make him not run. And the best way to make him not run is to hit him when he does.)

UCLA Defense

Players to Note

#94 DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa - One of the top DL recruits in the nation in 2010. High-motor guy, with good speed. Has added bulk during his college years to better fit into the UCLA defensive scheme. Capable run defender, but best coming off the edge as a pass rusher. Missed all of last season due to injury. Freshman All-Pac-10 in 2010. Has played in 38 games, but just 8 starts. Totaled 6.5 sacks and 11.5 TFLs during his time.

#97 DT Kenny Clark - Good size for a NT. Gets off the ball quickly, but doesn't move all that well. Stays low and is difficult to move. As a true freshman in 2013, started 4 games and totaled 18 tackles including 4 TFLs and a sack. Also forced a fumble. Got better as the season went on. Was the most outstanding lineman in UCLA's Sun Bowl win over Virginia Tech.

#6 ILB Eric Kendricks - A little bit undersized for an ILB, but plays bigger than he is. Good speed, better quickness. Moves well in traffic. Reads the game well, and doesn't miss tackles. Led the team in tackles last year despite missing 2 games. Led the team in tackles in 2012 as well, with 150. Second on team in tackles as a freshman in 2011.

#30 LB Myles Jack - Yes, this is the same Myles Jack as the RB. He plays both offense and defense. Was named Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year (along with Offense). Was named to several All-American teams as an "all-purpose" player. Very good size/speed combination for a LB. Very difficult to block coming off the edge. Also capable in pass coverage. Led the team with 13 passes defensed and had 2 INTs. Has a lot in common with Anthony Barr, who was also a RB earlier in his career. Will likely take over for Barr as the primary pass rusher for the Bruins defense.

#24 Ishmael Adams - Not a big CB, but plays bigger than he is. Very good speed. Good all-around football player. Best in man-to-man, can play as a zone defender as well. Very good in run support, especially for a smaller CB. Good closing speed/make-up speed. Led the team with 4 INTs. Will likely also return kicks.

#3 Randall Goforth - Undersized for a safety, but has outstanding speed. Recuited by most schools as a WR. Uses speed to make up for lack of size and has plenty of speed to make up for any mistakes. Not a guy who will cover a TE man-to-man, but can handle a slot WR. Plays a good centerfield, uses his speed to cover tons of ground. Fourth on the team in tackles last year and 2nd in INTs and forced fumbles. Will likely return punts.

Defense Breakdown

UCLA runs a base 3-4 defense, relying on playmaking LBs (such as 2014 top ten pick Anthony Barr). Though they almost always play with 3 down linemen, they will often run 5 DBs in a 3-3-5 set. The Hoos may not see quite as much 3-3-5 because UCLA will be gearing up to stop Kevin Parks and the ground game.

While guys like Odighizuwa can and will rush the passer, the pass rush is supposed to come from the OLBs. Myles Jack may see time at RB, but he's a starter on defense, and UCLA may save him for that. Jack was 3rd on the team last year with 7 TFLs. Barr led the team with 10 sacks, but two DEs tied for 2nd with 6 each.

UCLA's defense last year was significantly better against the pass than the run. They were just 71st against the run, and 44th against the pass. Even if that weren't the case, the Hoos would be trying to establish the run. It would help slow down the UCLA pass rush a bit, and would give Greyson Lambert some time to get his feet wet as a starting QB. If the Hoos aren't successful running the ball early on, that will allow UCLA's pass rushers to pin their ears back and go after Lambert. With the Hoos inexperienced OL, this would not bode well.

UCLA's DBs are talented and quick, but none of them are very big. Even their safeties are well under 200 pounds. Bigger WRs such as Keeon Johnson and Miles Gooch should have good matchups and will be able to make plays, assuming Lambert has the time to find them.

The Hoos RBs may also provide a weapon in the passing game. With UCLA trying hard to get at Lambert, a screen pass to Smoke Mizzell could be useful. WR screens and quick-hitters will also be an easy way to keep Lambert on his feet and get him into a rhythm. Of course, with a LB like Myles Jack on the field, Lambert will need to be careful he doesn't miss a read and throw a pick-6.

Last year's Wahoo offense was downright atrocious most of the time. When Parks was running well, the offense worked. But if he was stopped, they couldn't do anything. Hopefully, Greyson Lambert can provide some big plays in the passing game, which David Watford wasn't able to do. We know UCLA is going to score points, so the Hoos offense is going to have to keep up. Some big plays would go a long way towards helping that.

Overall Game Breakdown

UCLA may not be as dynamic as Oregon was when they came to Scott Stadium last year. But overall, they aren't far behind the Ducks (if at all). The Hoos were able to stay with Oregon, to some degree, for much of the 1st half. After all, it was just 28-10 at halftime. This Wahoo team should be better than last year, so we'd expect to see the Hoos hang around for at least as long.

The Hoos aren't going to stop Hundley and the UCLA offense, but they have enough talent to at least make them work. The real questions are all about the Wahoo offense. Can they play mistake-free football, and avoid putting the defense in bad positions? Can they move the ball enough to give the defense some rest? Can they put some points on the board to hang around with UCLA's potent offense?

If this game weren't the season-opener, maybe there would be some chance of the above being possible. But in the opener, with a new QB and an inexperienced line, there is little chance. UCLA's defense lost a lot of production from last year's squad, but they still have a lot of talent and Jim Mora is a very good defensive coach (make no mistake, despite the promotion of Jeff UIbrich to defensive coordinator, this defense is Mora's).

The Hoos may well hang around for a while, partially due to the early kickoff, partially due to the expected heat and humidity and partially due simply to being an improved football team over last year's squad. But they still aren't ready to compete with the upper echelon of college football. The spread in this game is roughly 21 points and that seems far too low. I wouldn't be surprised if UCLA were up by more than that at halftime.

Prediction: UCLA 48, Hoos 10